Monthly Archives: October 2011

Author Q&A Series: Helon Habila

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Helon Habila is the author of ‘Oil on Water’, ‘Measuring Time’, and ‘Waiting for an Angel’. His books have won him both The Common Wealth Writers’ Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. A professor at George Mason University’s Graduate Creative Writing Programme, Habila talks, here, about being wary of strangers bearing anecdotes, bad poetry, and the return of Lomba and of Christ…

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

If I wasn’t happily married I’d say Hagar from Waiting for an Angel. She is described as being very beautiful. And she is a prostitute. But, since I am happily married I’ll say Lomba from the same book. I am thinking of doing a sequel to Waiting, so I’d like to prepare him for all the heartache coming his way, and to let him know there will definitely be a happy ending.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

Bad poetry, mostly. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare, and trying to do rhymes. Recently a girl I used to know showed me a poem I wrote for her and I was amazed at how bad it was. I just hope she doesn’t put it on facebook.

Where/when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

A random guy in a bus in Lagos. He was really enjoying the book; it was Waiting for an Angel. When my friend who I was with told him I was Helon Habila he didn’t believe it.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

It has to be 100 Years of Solitude by Marquez. When you look under “kick ass” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of that book. I still haven’t read another novel that has quite wowed me in the same way.

Name one author that you consider overrated.

Only one?

Achebe or Soyinka?

Now you are trying to get me into trouble – I think I’ll be justified if I say I like them both equally since their styles are very different. I like Soyinka for his poetry. Ogun Abibiman is perhaps the best work of poetry you can ever read by any author.  Achebe I like for Things Fall Apart, it is an inspired work.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Are you kidding? Any fool can sell a million copies, but winning the Nobel is like being touched by the gods. It is a gift.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

Very hard to answer this one. But I’ll have to go with a sustained career of good books. I think it takes time for most artists to grow and to master their medium, but once they do, they never falter. And even their minor works will still show their promise and ability. You only really understand an artist when you consider his/her whole corpus, not just one single book.

Best perk of being a writer?

It teaches you to think, and to express yourself clearly.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Complete strangers keep trying to tell you their life story, or their family history, or some anecdote about their colourful uncle, when all you want to do is to have a polite conversation, and maybe compare notes about kids and after school programmes. They just think they have to say something smart or learned. It is very tiring.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

I really don’t read my own reviews.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

That it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. You have to grind, just like in any other profession. Only the most committed succeeds in the end.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.

Actually I noticed my spelling is getting wrose these days. The computer is making us all lazy. But my punctuation is impeccable. So, I’ll say 4/5 for spelling and 5/5 for punctuation.

What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?

The list is long. But to pick one: Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially since I’ve been known to quote lines from the book in conversations.

What is your guilty reading?

I used to read the venerable Dame Barbara Cartland – but that was a long time ago.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Time. It gets harder to find time in between the myriad compelling demands one has to contend with every day. Between work and family, the day is gone before you are even properly awake. My advice to young writers: if you really want to have a crack at this, don’t marry till you are at least 40, have your first, and only, child at 45, then maybe, just maybe, you will have a fair chance of success.

And the most pleasurable?

It has to be the perfect sentence. When you write the perfect sentence, you will know. No one has to tell you, and that is its own reward. If you are lucky to achieve that in the morning, the rest of your day will just be glorious. Nothing can go wrong.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

I’ll have to say lack of commitment. I don’t mean this in an ideological, didactic sense. But a book has to show a high seriousness, an awareness about people, about its socio-political milieu, couple that with the requisite aesthetic awareness, and you have me.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

I don’t know – maybe a whip wielding Christ to once again clear the commerce ridden, money worshipping society we live in.

What’s next?

Sometimes I feel as if I haven’t even started as a writer. I am as eager about writing as I was the first day I decided to become a writer. Writing has taught me to think, and to question concepts that I’d otherwise accept as given.

Read others in the Author Q&A series

Author Q&A Series

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Being an avid reader of Nigerian and African literature, I have always been interested in finding out  how authors come to be, how they approach their craft, and, most of all, how like the rest of us they are. It is this interest – part curiosity, part awe – that has inspired me to track down some of Africa’s best writers, and begin the Author Q&A.

See the series so far:

Helon Habila – On strangers bearing tales, bad poetry, and the return of Christ.

Tonikan Onwordi – On infidelity and epiphanies in foreign lavatories.

Chika Unigwe – On nostalgia and Alastair Campbell’s endorsement.

Alisa Ahlam – On Ayaan Hirsi, dinner dates with Hemingway and being Muslim Sex And The City.

Chinelo Okparanta – On glossophobia, overcoming the temptation of Adichie’s literature, and the bum-expanding implications of writing

Lola Shoneyin – On Mad Magazine, being published in Hebrew, and resurrecting the yam pounder.

Myne Whitman – On stuffy collars in Ivory Towers, characters spewing philosophy, and The Road that remains Famished.

Jude Dibia – On emotional truth, a writer’s stubborness and a salesperson’s epiphany

Diana Evans – On wrestling the beast of plot and Amy Winehouse’s encore

Unoma Azuah – On querying God, children’s fiction, and bankable literature.

Billy Kahora – On bad behaviour, Binyavanga Wainana, and quantity surveying

Noo Saro-Wiwa – On eavesdropping in buses, ancient hominids, and BBC Book of the Week

Chibundu Onuzo – On infant recollections, selective amnesia, and dying to make a classic

Nnedi Okorafor – On dyslexia, unpleasant classics and Whoopi Goldberg

Victor Ehikhamenor – On misquoting the Bible, avoiding Islam and the art of letter writing

Tolulope Popoola – On losing her way, rediscovering self, and conquering her fear

Kenechi Udogu – On world-building, the sticky middle, and been trapped in a teenage mind

A review: Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

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Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Published by Bloomsbury

283pp

Some books are hard to review. Most times because the precise combination of story, style and characterisation makes such an impression that analysis might well turn into panegyric. Dog Boy, by Eva Hornung, is one such book. It was a relief, therefore, to have had something (if slight) to quarrel with at the novel’s end.

But first the synopsis: Romochka, a four-year old Russian boy, is abandoned in an evacuated tenement building by his mother and uncle for reasons that readers never get to know. After a few days of tinkering in the desolate building, hungry and cold, he ventures out into the late autumn. But with his mother’s stringent warnings about dangerous strangers ringing in his ears, he discards ideas of seeking refuge with the neighbours and instead finds himself trailing a female dog. 

What follows is Romochka’s wary acceptance into the lair of a clan of dogs, his first meal in days – of milk suckled from Mamochka, as he comes to call the clan matriarch. And three years of weathering season changes, fighting clan battles and surviving militzia raids with his expanding family; as well as of transforming from an inept “puppy” seeking acceptance and worth in the canine family, into a lead dog to be regarded with deference.

What might have from a lesser writer been a suffocating time spent in the hold of the reeking, underground lair becomes in the hands of Hornung a privileged eavesdrop on bizarre experiences and first hand acquaintance with the rituals and psychology of man’s best friend.

And just when the reader begins to get the sense of knowing it all, the writer changes tacks, outraging us along with Romochka when Mamochka unapologetically adopts yet another human child – one that Romochka ironically names ‘Puppy’, a label he never used for his canine siblings. The writer further saves a plot that might have tapered to a dead end by switching points of view much later in the novel, and introducing adult human characters to ease the readers’ approaching canine-weariness, and bring into societal significance the unseen but no less meaningful lives of feral dogs in modern day Moscow.

Romochka is one of the more dynamic characters I have encountered in literature – a hybrid of boy, man and dog, both naïve and world wise; wicked and tender (he kills a human without compunction, yet regrets when he has to butcher a cat for a meal); and is adept at casting himself in any roles as required by present circumstance and the expectation of the city’s human population – one time he’s a dog owner begging for scraps and coercing his “two pretty performers” to shed their wild behaviour while on the job, another time he’s a human sibling demanding to see his younger brother in a civil establishment, other times he morphs into modern day Tarzan wrestling enemy dogs.

One thing Hornung has in her favour is that not many readers, perhaps none, can claim acquaintance with a dog-raised human boy, so we have no recourse but to depend on her imagination, backed no doubt by research, to point us one way or the other. But from this writer, whose experience with dogs is limited to the odd pat, her behavioural depictions ring true. Feral dog owners can insert disagreement here.

Still Dog Boy is as much a critique of society as it is an expose on canine habitation. It illustrates on the one hand, the practiced blindness of Moscow- and indeed most cosmopolitan areas- to its dark underbelly; and on the other, people’s innate doctrinaire ideals and their eagerness to find familiar explanations for confounding observations.

Written in a simple narrative style in the omniscient observer perspective, almost like conversational addresses by a narrator Romochka’s own age, Dog Boy is almost entirely sparing of dialogue – in a way that is unnoticeable as well as understandable (dogs only talk in Disney movies after all). But a few diary entries, chapters introduced with different perspectives and voices, news reports, and human soliloquies employing professional argot break up the monotony of a full on narrative.

Now to my grouse: Despite being abandoned by his human mother, Romockha’s experiences are irrevocably shaped by this elusive character; and it is disappointing that the author declines to expound on why a mother would abandon her child, nor afford the readers closure by introducing her later in the story. Also, while being the consummate obfuscator, Romochka appears slightly more eloquent in human conversation than his limited interaction with people leads us to expect. Even if most of his words are borrowed from fragments of conversation – statements like: “but for some piss, the world is full of shit” or “I can get you a bird… it’s not fucking easy but I can get you a bird” are difficult to attribute to a seven year old who last used language when he was four.

For a novel that defies pigeon-holing in the simple fact of its plot, one of its themes, the one that supports the prejudice that humans, by virtue of proven intelligence, always know what is best for other animal species, is something of a letdown. Nonetheless, it helps that the novel closes with the human characters left uncertain about the rightness of their actions.

First published in The Sun, Nigeria, October 2011